Skip to content
On Guy Fawkes Day, bonfires crackle and leap all over England. Children inveigle passersby for small change, chanting, "Remember, remember, the 5th of November." Scarecrows stuffed to resemble the most hated man of the hour are tossed on the pyre.
This public exorcism of demons has been celebrated in England for almost 400 years but, like Halloween's in the United States, its meaning has been obscured by the smoky glass of time. Guy Fawkes was a traitor whose capture on the night of Nov. 4 or early on Nov. 5, 1605, saved England from rebellion and regicide. This bloody red-letter event in English history foreshadowed such contemporary tragedies as Sept. 11.
British historian Lady Antonia Fraser told the tale of terrorism and religious persecution that came to a head on that dark night in English history in "Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot ," which I read in little more than a sitting when it was published seven years ago. Then, last summer, I took the book with me to England and used it as a Baedecker guidebook to see where the plotters — dashing Renaissance gentlemen all — made their plans and were thwarted, interrogated, tortured, tried and executed for treason.
I grew up thinking British history was the greatest story ever told though, admittedly, only a hard-core Anglophile would go to England specifically to follow such a seemingly obscure historical yarn as the gunpowder treason. But could I win your forbearance by mentioning that Shakespeare wrote about the conspiracy in "Macbeth" and may have known the plotters? That such popular sites as the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey can be freshly appreciated for the roles they played in the plot? That those who venture miles north of London to Warwickshire, where most of the plotters lived, are met with some of the finest Tudor manors in the land and the English countryside at its bucolic best?
So hie we hence to London, a city greatly changed since the early 17th century. The old palace of Westminster, in the heart of the city, home of English kings, was almost destroyed by fire in 1834, replaced with a new palace, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. This noble neo-Gothic edifice, profusely decorated with statues and heraldic panels, stretching 872 feet along the embankment of the River Thames, is a London icon, of course. Britons can tour the complex year-round, by arrangement with their members of Parliament; tourists who want to see inside must visit in July, August, September or October, when tickets are required.
Gunpowder plot enthusiasts must see Westminster, at least from the outside. If you stand by the equestrian statue of Richard the Lion-Hearted on the western facade, you will be near the coal cellar where Guy Fawkes amassed 36 barrels of gunpowder, intending to blow up the House of Lords when the peers of the realm and King James I attended State Opening day in 1605.
An anonymous letter shown to Secretary of State Robert Cecil alerted the government in time; the cellar was searched and Fawkes was arrested, followed by the apprehension or death of the other plotters during a wild chase through Warwickshire. Among the traditions that arose from the event are Guy Fawkes Day and the ritual search for explosives at Westminster by Yeomen of the Guard every year on the opening of Parliament.
More echoes of the plot can be heard by those with summer opening tour tickets, especially in the House of Lords, where the explosion would have rained terror on assembled peers, commoners and sovereign. In a glass case outside is a relic of the conspiracy, pages from the Nov. 5, 1605, Commons Journal, with margin notes recording the discovery of Fawkes by the fuse in the cellar.
At the end of the tour, visitors pass through Westminster Hall, one of the only parts of the medieval palace to survive the 19th century fire. Angels carved at the buttresses of its massive wooden ceiling beams have witnessed a long chain of solemn occasions, including the trials of eight gunpowder plotters, seven of whom pleaded not guilty, despite evidence and confessions — given under torture, many historians say — to the contrary.
Four centuries after the fact, it's hard to imagine how deeply England was shaken by the gunpowder treason. In "Witches and Jesuits," a study of references to the plot in the text of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," author Garry Wills suggests an analogy: "Imagine America in the 1950s, and suppose that a communist cell — made up of Americans acting under foreign direction — has planted a nuclear device under the United States Capitol
timed to go off when the president is addressing both houses of Congress." Perhaps the best parallel is Sept. 11, when a cadre of terrorists plotted an act against innocents that, unfortunately, was not foiled.
The motives of the gunpowder plotters begin to become clear when you cross St. Margaret Abingdon Street from Parliament, steering for the spires of Westminster Abbey that rise like mainsails in the sky. A selective tour of the abbey sets the scene. It was founded around 960 by Catholic monks and is now an Anglican house of worship where all the kings and queens of England since William the Conqueror were crowned.
Start in the exquisitely fan-vaulted Lady Chapel, off the North Ambulatory, with the tomb of Catholic Queen Mary I ("Bloody Mary," 1516-58) lying in the center beside that of her half-sister, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I (1533-03). Their father, Henry VIII, started a religious conflict that raged throughout the 16th and 17th centuries by breaking away from the church of Rome to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
For a good deal of that time, England was Protestant. Catholics surrendered their faith, moved to the Continent or practiced their religion secretly in a country where the celebration of Mass was forbidden by law. Unbending Papists, known as recusants, were heavily fined. Jesuit priests were exiled or executed for treason if caught saying Mass.
During the long reign of Elizabeth I, wounds festered and myriad plots were hatched to replace her with a Catholic monarch such as Mary Queen of Scots. The gunpowder plot was the climax of Catholic machinations against the Protestant crown. It came just after the death of Elizabeth I, when the Protestant son of Mary Queen of Scots rode south to claim the throne as James I of England.
By the time Catholics got the right to vote in England in 1829, religious tolerance had been established. In the hindsight we enjoy as we stand by the tombs of Henry VIII's daughters, bloody battles between Catholics and Protestants seem needless. ("Consorts both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection," says the Latin inscription there.)
Mary's elaborate tomb is in the south aisle. In the museum to the south of the sanctuary, there's the lugubrious waxen funeral effigy of Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I. Anne and James had eight children, thereby ensuring the succession after Elizabeth I died without giving birth to an heir. They made a handsome couple, but, unlike her husband, Anne was a Catholic who secretly attended Mass.
Our next stop is the Tower of London, where James I entered the capital on May 11, 1603, stopping to see the royal zoo and armory there. Fawkes, the stalwart Catholic soldier, is thought to have been taken to the tower through the riverside Traitors' Gate after his capture in 1605 and interrogated by, among others, Secretary of State Cecil.
The buff brick walls, gatehouses and roofs of the medieval fortress describe a quintessentially English panorama. Visited by schoolchildren and tourists who want to see the crown jewels, the tower is almost always crowded. Those hoping for rat-infested dungeons and ghoulish instruments of torture are likely to be disappointed because many of the tower's high-born prisoners were quartered in commodious apartments, not cells; time has washed away the bloodstains; and, apart from a small exhibit on torture at the tower, there's little to suggest how Fawkes was stretched on the rack to make him reveal the names of his co-conspirators.
A little chilling background is required to appreciate what went on at the tower in the aftermath of the discovery of the gunpowder plot. It's thought that, between rackings, Fawkes was incarcerated in the bowels of the White Tower, now a museum of weaponry in the center of the complex. Fawkes held out long enough to give other plotters a chance to flee on horseback to the Catholic stronghold of Warwickshire, where they had planned to incite a popular uprising had things fallen differently at Westminster. With the authorities in hot pursuit, they made a bloody last stand in one of the plotter's manor houses near present-day Birmingham, where four were killed. The rest were arrested there or run to ground soon after.
While awaiting trial and execution, Ambrose Rookwood, a wealthy young Catholic gallant recruited by the plotters chiefly for his stable of fast horses, chiseled his name on the stone wall of the room where he was kept; this poignant inscription can still be inspected in the Martin Tower, at the complex's northwest corner.
The walls of the nearby Salt and Broad Arrow Towers bear bits of Catholic iconography that testify to the incarceration of Church of Rome believers and priests, including Father Henry Garnet, who was pursued with a vengeance for having failed to speak out when he learned, some months before the planned explosion at Westminster, that a Catholic plot was in the works (though he would have had to break the seal of the confessional to expose it). For putting his vows to the church before loyalty to the crown, Garnet was hanged and drawn and quartered as crowds of Londoners watched.
Does one owe ultimate allegiance to conscience or crown? That was the Jesuit's dilemma, mirrored in the hearts of the conspirators. Unlike Garnet, the unlucky 13 who plotted the gunpowder treason were traitors and terrorists. The beauty of Fraser's book is that it rubs the tarnish off the other side of the coin to show how these members of a persecuted religious minority came to feel justified in killing innocents for their cause and how they too were driven by courage and conviction.
A trip to Warwickshire — which takes about two hours by car north from London and can be incorporated into a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon — brings the character and motives of the conspirators to life and shows how traces of the Old Faith ribboned through the region around Shakespeare's birthplace. The playwright's mother, Mary Arden, was born to a prominent local Catholic family; in 1592, his father, John Shakespeare, is named on a list of recusants; four masters at the school young Will attended were Catholic sympathizers.
If no one can say whether Shakespeare knew the conspirators, there is little doubt about their wide Warwickshire connections. If you stand at the top of St. Mary's Church in the town of Warwick, north of Stratford, you can survey the deceptively placid countryside of the Catholic plotters — once covered by the Forest of Arden, borrowed by Shakespeare for the setting of "As You Like It." There, in oak and hemlock shade, Catholic families clustered, worshiped in secret, harbored priests and bred such hotheads as Robert Catesby. Charismatic, swashbuckling and tragically widowed at a young age, he was a Catholic fanatic who recruited kinsmen and friends for the cause, many of whom went to the block praising him. He, not Fawkes, was the author of the plot.
I stopped on my way north in the village of Ashby St. Ledgers to see the mellow stone home of Catesby's mother, now a private residence. Tradition has it that he and a handful of co-conspirators worked out the details of the plot in the beautiful half-timbered Tudor gatehouse there.
Historians say that on his ride north from London after Fawkes' apprehension at Westminster, Catesby stopped at Ashby St. Ledgers to tell the bad news to a fellow plotter, without making his presence known to his mother, who never saw him alive again.
I stayed in the hamlet of Dunchurch, about 10 miles northwest of Ashby St. Ledgers. There, one of Catesby's most regrettable recruits, rich, well-beloved, sweet-tempered Everard Digby, waited at the Old Red Lion Inn — now privately owned, with a plaque that calls it the Guy Fawkes House — for the terrible news from London. When it came, the conspirators leaped on their horses and rode west for the Welsh border.
An easy drive northwest from Dunchurch takes you across Dunsmore Heath, over which Digby proposed to hunt while, in reality, readying his henchmen to raise a Catholic rebellion. A network of meandering country roads leads eventually to Coombe Abbey, where Digby was supposed to kidnap Elizabeth, the 9-year-old daughter of James I, and make her a puppet queen, with strings drawn by Catholics.
Near the abbey, there's a chain of Catholic manors where gunpowder plotters briefly rested as agents of the crown snapped at their heels. Huddington Court, the scene of the refugee plotters' final Mass, and Holbeach House, where they made their last stand, are two of these, privately owned and tucked into the countryside but worth finding with the guidance of "In the Footsteps of the Gunpowder Plotters" by Conall Boyle, a member of the international Gunpowder Plot Society.
Besides these, two Catholic houses in Warwickshire are English National Trust properties open to tourists. I started at Baddesley Clinton, a small, comfortable 13th century manor with stained-glass heraldic devices gleaming in its windows and a parish church, close to the castle town of Warwick. A restaurant and gift shop operated by the National Trust make Baddesley Clinton a good day-trip destination.
Casual visitors rarely have a clue about the dramas that took place at the manor in the time of the Catholic noblewoman Anne Vaux, Father Garnet's acolyte, who sheltered priests there in the guise of family friends and retainers. When searchers, known as pursuivants, banged on the door, brave widow Anne stashed away chalices, vestments and religious counselors in priest holes, ingeniously built into the walls and floors of the house.
Then it was on to Coughton Court, a grand aristocratic manse about 10 miles northwest of Stratford-upon-Avon, with a Tudor gatehouse sandwiched between twin 18th century wings, an Elizabethan knot garden and two lovely churches, Protestant and Catholic. Of enduring importance to English Church of Rome devotees, Coughton Court has been the home of the high-ranking Catholic Throckmorton family for the last six centuries.
One of the first Catholic members of Parliament was a Throckmorton, and Catesby was related to the clan, as was his recruit Francis Tresham, who is thought to have written the anonymous letter that exposed the gunpowder plot.
Coughton also has priest holes aplenty and an elegant blue drawing room where a messenger told Digby's pretty wife of the plot's failure
Seeing these places doesn't resolve unanswered questions about the plot. Who wrote the letter that alerted the government? Were the conspirators' confessions forged? How much did Cecil know about the plot before the fact?
Nevertheless, I will always remember the 5th of November, Digby, Catesby and Fawkes. After tracing their steps across England, I am inclined to believe that they were motivated not by unadulterated evil but by religious zeal, which is much more powerful than gunpowder.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
CAST OF PLAYERS
Of rascals and royalty
Guy Fawkes: A Catholic and a military man. He revealed the names of the plotters during torture.
Robert Catesby: Initiator of the Gunpowder Plot. He fled after the scheme unraveled and was killed by government troops.
Father Henry Garnet: A Jesuit hanged for his alleged part in the plot.
Ambrose Rookwood: His job was to carry news of the success of the plot to Catesby. He was executed with Fawkes.
Everard Digby: He was to have kidnapped Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I, after the successful completion of the plot. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered, like most of the conspirators.
Other conspirators: Thomas Winter, Robert Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Christopher Wright and Thomas Bates.
On the side of the crown
King James I: Son of Mary, Queen of Scots and king of Scotland before becoming king of England in 1603. He and his wife, Queen Anne, were targets of the plot to blow up Parliament.
Secretary of State Robert Cecil: A trusted advisor to the crown who served under Elizabeth I and James I.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, "The Gunpowder Plot," by Vincent Hemingway, "The Gunpowder Plot: Terror & Faith in 1605," by Antonia Fraser, and "In the Footsteps of the Gunpowder Plotters," by Conall Boyle.
Plotting the Gunpowder Trail
From LAX, nonstop service to London's Heathrow is offered on British Airways, Air New Zealand, American, United and Virgin Atlantic. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $408.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for England) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
St. Margaret's Hotel, 26 Bedford Place, London WC1B 5JL; 20-7636-4277, fax 20-7323-3066, http://www.stmargaretshotel.co.uk , is a favorite. Doubles with and without private baths $106 to $164, including breakfast.
Basil Street Hotel, 8 Basil St., Knightsbridge, London SW3 1AH; 20-7581-3311, fax 20-7581-3693, http://www.thebasil.com , is quiet and clubby, another favorite. Doubles begin at $347.
In Warwickshire, I stayed at the quaint Old Thatched Cottage Hotel & Restaurant, Southam Road, Dunchurch, Warwickshire CV22 6NG; telephone/fax 1788-810-417, english-inns.co.uk/OldThatchedCottage. It has seven chambers (request a room at the rear to avoid street noise). Doubles from $128, including breakfast.
Coombe Abbey in the eastern outskirts of Coventry, Brinklow Road, Binley, Coventry, Warwickshire CV3 2AB, 24-7645-0450, fax 24-7663-5101, http://www.coombeabbey.com was the home of James I's daughter Elizabeth, intended hostage and puppet queen of the gunpowder plotters. It has a costumed staff, medieval banquets, a park designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown and 83 lavishly decorated chambers, such as the Chinoiserie Suite, with the bed beneath a pagoda. Rates for doubles (most of which are really suites) $255 to $621, including breakfast.
The Throckmorton Arms, Coughton, Warwickshire B49 5HX; 1789-766-366, very near Coughton Court, is an excellent public house with 10 nicely furnished rooms (Nos. 1 and 5 overlook a sheep meadow). Doubles $85, including breakfast.
Billesley Manor Hotel, Billesley, Alcester, Warwickshire B49 6NF; 1789-279-955, fax 1789-764-145, http://www.billesleymanor.co.uk , near Coughton Court and Stratford-upon-Avon, a tastefully renovated Renaissance manor house said to have been frequented by Shakespeare. The most atmospheric rooms are in the main house. Rates for doubles $289 to $374, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
The hotels listed above, except St. Margaret's in London. In Dunchurch, hearty three-course meals featuring roasted meats are served at the Huntsman Carvery, on the main square; 1788-811-748, about $30.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL:
Three important sites still speak of the gunpowder treason:
Palace of Westminster, now the Houses of Parliament, on the River Thames, was the target of the plot. The interior can be visited only during the summer opening of the Houses of Parliament in July, August, September and October. For information, contact the Houses of Parliament; 20-7219-3000, http://www.parliament.uk .
Tower of London, 870-756-6060, http://www.tower-of-london.org.uk , since 1066 a fortress, palace, armory and prison, where many of the plotters were held and tortured, including Guy Fawkes. It is at Tower Hill near the River Thames and is open daily.
Westminster Abbey, 20-7654-4900, http://www.westminster-abbey.org , the Gothic house of worship adjacent to Parliament, would have looked over the plotters' shoulders as they secreted kegs of powder in a basement nearby. Open daily.
Two houses are National Trust properties open to visitors: Baddesley Clinton, Rising Lane, Baddesley Clinton Village, Knowle, Solihull B93 0DQ; 1564-783-294, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk , a moat- ed house about 10 miles northwest of Warwick that served as a hide-out for Jesuits during the time of the plot. The house is open Wednesdays-Sundays, March to November; garden and shop on premises.
Coughton Court, Alcester, Warwickshire, England B49 5JA; 1789-762-435, http://www.coughtoncourt.co.uk , home of one of the first Catholic families in the land, the Throckmortons, where plotters' wives anxiously awaited word of their husbands' fates. Open March to October; garden and shop.
TO LEARN MORE:
VisitBritain, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; (800) GO-2-BRITAIN (462-2748), http://www.visitbritain.com .
— Susan Spano